Why choose one photo to frame when you can have a thousand? Digital picture frames allow you to display those shots that would otherwise live on your phone. Send them through an app or email and they will immediately be displayed in your home, or a loved one’s. Meeting your baby nephew for the first time? Let the grandparents in on the moment in just a click. Staying in touch with a long-distance pal? Surprise them with a memory that will brighten their morning.
These frames have come a long way in the last 20 years. With intuitive apps, motion sensors, video playback and smart image cropping, they are a far cry from the old pixelated gadgets that required SD card slots. The resolutions are higher, the features are plentiful and the apps give you control from anywhere at any moment.
In our testing, we preferred the Aura Mason 9-inch frame for its elegant app, elevated appearance and vivid display with minimal wasted space. For a lower-price alternative, we recommend the Aura Carver 10.1-inch frame; it has many of the same excellent features as the Mason and a larger display, but a slightly lower resolution and a less ideal aspect ratio. The Skylight 10-inch digital frame is the best option for those who prefer a touch-screen display for easy zooming and in-frame controls.
Best overall digital picture frame
Buy Side Top Pick
This user-friendly frame offers an excellent display and easy photo sharing, making it ideal for sharing memories.
- Vivid display with ideal aspect ratio
- Foolproof photo sharing
- Easy setup
- Intuitive, collaborative app
- Landscape and portrait orientation
- Bulkier frame
- No manual control for brightness
- Cloud storage only
- Screen size: 9 inches
- Product measurements: 9.7 inches by 7.6 inches
- Resolution: 1600 x 1200 pixels
- Aspect ratio: 4:3
A mix of high resolution and a perfect level of brightness gives the photos displayed on the Aura Mason some of the sharpest details and the most vivid colors among the frames we tested. Digital photos displayed on the screen look as close to real as on any competitor. The brightness automatically adjusts to the lighting of the room and, vitally, it goes to sleep when the lights are off. It isn’t triggered if someone is up and about in the night nearby or if the TV is the only source of light.
Getting photos onto the Mason is as easy as it gets. Photos can be emailed or added via the mobile app (more on the app below), a computer or directly from Google Photo albums or iCloud. They show up instantly, and once they’re on the frame, you can choose to display them in various ways including one at a time or in a rotating slideshows.
The Mason has a 4:3 aspect ratio, which we found in our research to be the ideal size. Anthony Verderame, a video editor and colorist who has worked for years with the images phones produce, says that an aspect ratio near square is ideal for displaying images because it results in less letterboxing and pillarboxing (the presence of black bars on the top/bottom and left/right sides of photos, respectively) across images of different sizes and orientations. The majority of frames on the market have a 16:10 or a 16:9 aspect ratio, making them more rectangular than a 4:3.
Of course, not every photo is going to automatically fit into a 4:3 screen without a tweak or two. Aura’s system offers smart cropping, which senses the best way to center a photo in the display. It’s an imperfect system—we found it sometimes mistakes mountains and other scenery as the central focus, and not the people in the pictures—but any issues are easily solved by the in-app photo cropping tool, which allows you to position each image in the frame to your liking.
In addition to its myriad features, the Mason simply looks great on the shelf. It comes in several colors. We tested the White Quartz model and liked the elevated look and texture—and subtle touch of sparkle—of the frame around the screen. The frame is on the bulkier side, but this allows the device to stand on its own without an awkward stand, and in either landscape or portrait positioning.
Instead of a touch screen, the Aura Mason (and the lower-price Carver model we discuss below) has an inconspicuous touch-sensitive bar along the top that you can tap to open a menu or swipe to move between images. This might seem less appealing than a full touch screen, but we found that the touch-screen models became speckled with fingerprints that were visible when the frame was sleeping or displaying darker images. With the touch bar, you don’t need to worry about cleaning the screen as often, and swiping between images this way is faster than swiping with any of the touch-screen models we tested. The touch bar allows you to exclude photos from rotation and power down the frame.
The rest of the frame’s settings can be controlled from Aura’s excellent mobile app. Many of the other frames we tested have the controls split more evenly between the frame itself (controlled by touch screen or remote) and a mobile or desktop app, which sometimes makes it confusing to find what you are looking for. The Aura app has an option to invite family and friends to contribute to the frame, which is easy for any level of technical ability.
The Mason has a higher-than-average resolution for the frames we tested at 1600 x 1200 pixels. While bigger might seem better in terms of resolution, Debashis Chanda, a professor in the department. of physics and College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida, says that isn’t always the case. He explains that a 800-to-1000-pixel vertical resolution is perfectly good for viewing images on a 10-inch screen from the usual distance at which you would enjoy a framed picture. Speaking about 2K frames (which are frames with a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels), he says: “I think it’s a lot of unnecessary pixels for a photo frame, as 2K is way too many pixels for our human eye to resolve.” While we did find that a 2K resolution didn’t look markedly better than the Mason’s 1600-pixel resolution to our eyes, we did think the Mason’s picture was sharper than the 1280 x 800-pixel frames we tested.
Best lower-price digital picture frame
Boasting many of the same winning features as the Mason, this larger-screen frame is a solid option with some creative features.
- Easy setup
- Collaborative and intuitive app
- Portrait photo pairing
- Only landscape orientation
- Video playback is too loud
- Cloud storage only
- Screen size: 10.1 inches
- Product measurements: 10.5 inches by 7.3 inches
- Resolution: 1280 x 800 pixels
- Aspect ratio: 16:10
In our testing, the battle for best overall frame really came down to the two devices from Aura: the Mason and the Carver. While we determined the Mason is the superior frame, the 10.1-inch Carver model is a great option with many of the same perks, including the touch bar, the best-in-class app and a stylish look with a slightly lower price tag. There are only minor downsides that keep it from being our top pick—namely its lower resolution and brightness and its lack of portrait-orientation support—but if you prefer a wider frame, it’s the one to buy.
Like the Mason, the Carver has a brightness sensor that adjusts its display to the light level in the room and automatically sleeps the frame when the room is dark. And, like the Mason, it has no manual way to adjust this brightness. However, the Carver is generally a bit less bright than the Mason and has a lower contrast ratio (a measurement of the difference between the brightest white and the darkest black), which means the picture display is a touch more muted than the Mason’s. It also has a lower resolution, with 150 pixels per inch versus the Mason’s 224. We still found the pictures to look excellent, but side by side, we noticed a difference.
According to Meredith Truax, a commercial portrait photographer, a softer display might even be better suited to certain types of photos. “If the photograph is a landscape and your aim is to have everything tack-sharp to see the expanse of the landscape, I would think it’d be important to see that super, super high resolution,” she says. But for older scanned personal photos, as an example, “that might be nice to see a little bit softer—it might feel a little more precious and as you remember it.”
The Carver cannot be turned on its side to display portrait-orientation images. But it offers a fix for this issue in a feature called “photo match,” where it displays two portrait-orientation images next to each other. It’s a clever idea that minimizes wasted space, but it can result in random, nonsensical pairings if the frame’s photo order setting is on shuffle. Videos play well on the frame but we found the volume jarring, even when set at near zero in the app.
Best touch-screen digital photo frame
The Skylight Frame
This device has setting controls within the frame and allows for zooming in and repositioning images manually.
- Fastest setup
- Responsive and sensitive touch screen
- Nice gifting packaging
- Not-ideal aspect ratio
- No brightness/motion sensor
- Membership upgrade needed for some features
- Screen size: 10 inches
- Product measurements: 12 inches by 8.5 inches
- Resolution: 1280 x 800 pixels
- Aspect ratio: 16:9
The Skylight 10-inch frame has the same resolution as the Aura Carver, so the pictures are sharp (though not as sharp as on the Mason), and the brightness can be controlled manually to choose a more punchy or more muted display. Photos can be emailed or added via mobile or desktop, but can’t be loaded from Google Photos or iCloud. The time between opening the box to the frame sitting on the counter with an image on display was lightning quick. In terms of looks, the Skylight is a bit unassuming in comparison to the Aura frames. It looks the most like a traditional, matted picture frame, so it will blend right in among the other frames on your mantle. For gifting purposes, the Skylight’s pastel orange packaging was also our favorite.
When it comes to swiping through the images and navigating controls, the touch screen on this frame is more sensitive and responsive than the others we tested. We think this is a solid option for gifting to family members who want to be more hands-on with their device. You can zoom in and change the positioning of a photo or use the menu to easily find a particular picture in the gallery. We also like the way a blue icon appears on the frame to notify that new photos have been added. This means that if you send the photos to your loved one’s frame, they will know and can skip ahead to the new ones without searching or using the app.
The 16:9 screen on this frame is very wide, which translates to frequent letterboxing and pillarboxing in the display. Unlike the Aura frames, the Skylight doesn’t have a brightness sensor, so if you want the frame to sleep overnight, you need to use the timer function in the app or click “Sleep Mode.” By far the most annoying aspect of this frame is the $39 annual subscription required to upload videos, create albums, access cloud storage (the frame comes with 8 gigabytes of internal storage) and use remote settings. While the hardware is great, this nickel-and-diming is a bummer.
Others you should know about
If only 2K will do
Modern 10 Aqua 2K Digital Picture Frame
Both our experts and our own testing confirmed that 2K resolution is over the top for displaying photos on a digital frame—the human eye simply can’t discern that level of detail at such a small size. But if you have your heart set on having as many pixels as possible, the Dragon Touch 10.1-inch 2K frame is reasonably priced. It’s also soon to be one of the few options available, as Aura and Nixplay confirmed with us that they are discontinuing their own 2K frames. Like the Aura Mason, this model has a 4:3 aspect ratio and can be positioned in either landscape or portrait orientation. The frame itself has an attractive, unique design with lines etched into navy blue. Video playback on this frame is the sharpest we saw in testing. We don’t love the circular, translucent menu button that is always on display in the top left corner, though.
The second-best-looking frame we tested is the Nixplay 10.1-inch frame. It comes in different colors, matting options and finishes like metallic gold and wood. The display is sharp and not too bright, and the frame can be hooked up to follow Alexa voice commands. However, it has more restrictions around file types and sizes than our top picks (HEIC files, a photo format used by Apple devices, aren’t supported for email uploading or on the Android app—only via iOS devices—and images are limited to a relatively small 12 megabytes). To access features like in-app photo editing, larger cloud storage and longer videos, you need to upgrade to a paid subscription.
The Aluratek 10-inch frame was in the running for our lower-cost pick, but we didn’t like that it doesn’t allow you to use a black background for empty space—rather adding a blur background using a scaled-up version of the image. The colors also lean on the cooler side. If you select a mode to have photos fill the frame, it doesn’t sense where the faces in the photo are, and video play is laggy. But it has many features in common with higher-price frames, such as its resolution and 16 gigabytes of internal storage.
The 10-inch Pix-Star frame is mainly controlled by a remote, which is less practical than onboard or app-based controls. While it has the largest selection of photo upload options, it offers the lowest resolution screen and looks more like a tablet than the other frames we tested, which is to say that it was the least stylish.
PhotoSpring’s Charge Pro frame is unique for its battery, which can last between three and five hours depending on brightness, with an optional 10-hour add-on available, making it worth consideration for a party, wedding or other instance where you want to display photos but don’t have access to an outlet. It also can display videos up to five minutes long—by far the longest of any frame we tested—and has 32GB of internal storage. However, after running out the battery in testing and plugging it in to charge, we struggled to get the frame working again. It took many resets before it finally stopped blinking a logo and displayed photos again.
How we picked
I’ve worked in media for nearly 15 years and have plenty of experience working with photography and videos. For additional insights into how photos appear on screens and what the human eye is capable of seeing and comfortable looking at, I spoke with experts in photography, optics and video editing. Commercial portrait photographer Meredith Truax gave the professional look at determining if photos are being translated properly between the camera and the frame. I consulted video editor and colorist Anthony Verderame on screen quality, color, contrast, aspect ratios and more. For the scientific view, I spoke to optics expert Dr. Debashis Chanda of the University of Central Florida about resolution and how our eyes interact with screens.
Unlike the majority of screens in our lives, digital photo frames are largely meant to exist as something to glance at and enjoy passively rather than steal your attention for long periods. We focused our testing on products with screens measuring around 10 inches, measured diagonally, that looked the most like traditional frames. This means we did not include multipurpose smart display tablets such as the Amazon Echo Show and Google Nest Hub, or TVs designed to show art, including Samsung’s The Frame. We also ruled out frames that lack Wi-Fi capabilities and therefore can only upload images via USB or SD card. We then considered the following factors to determine whether a frame is worthy of your memories:
- Brightness, color and resolution: According to our experts, the sweet spot for brightness is between 200 and 500 candela per square meter (cd/m), which is equivalent to nits, a more commonly used unit for brightness. Some frames have sensors that adjust the brightness automatically, while others can be controlled manually. Color accuracy, when compared with the file as you know it best, is also important. We only tested frames above 1080 pixels in horizontal resolution on the advice of experts.
- Ease of setup and user interface: You shouldn’t need to read the whole manual to get an image uploaded and displayed on your new frame. The software or app should be intuitive and logical, with enough control to handle the important stuff, but not so much as to be overwhelming. There should be multiple, easy methods for uploading images (including email, mobile apps or desktop options) and ideally connections to common cloud storage platforms like Google Photos.
- Motion or brightness sensor responsiveness: If you are relying on a motion sensor to put your frame to sleep when no one is around to see it, sensitivity is a big factor. Will it work in both large and small spaces? Will it give you a shock by lighting up in the middle of the night while you are groggily shuffling by on the way to the bathroom?
- Supported image formats: Different devices save photos in different formats. The best frames won’t force you to convert your files to add them.
- Slideshow settings and transition options: Ideally, a frame will give you control over the order your photos appear in, the amount of time they are on screen, whether any empty space around the images is black or blurred and what kind of transition exists between photos. Transitions vary between the frame brands, ranging from simple swipes to the left to fades to Star Wars-style wipe transitions—which we found to be a bit much.
- Audio and video playback: What length of video can the frame play? Is the volume easy to control? Is the playback clear, without lagging?
- Touch-screen responsiveness: Not all frames have touch screens, but those that do have ways to control settings, swipe through images and, in some cases, set alarms and play games. The swiping and selection process should feel fast and accurate with no lag behind an action.
For the best comparison, we used the same set of photos and videos on each frame, including professional wedding photos in a Google Photos album, mobile phone snaps, solid RGB colors and a gray scale. We uploaded various file types, including HEIC and PNG images, ranging in size from 5 kilobytes to 20MB, as well as 80MB videos. We ran the frames for days on end, positioning them sequentially in different positions and making sure that the motion/brightness sensors and sleep timers worked.
- Debashis Chanda, researcher and professor at the University of Central Florida’s NanoScience Technology Center, department of physics and College of Optics and Photonics
- Meredith Truax, commercial portrait photographer based in New York City
- Anthony Verderame, Brooklyn-based video editor and colorist who most recently worked for “The Problem with Jon Stewart” among other shows
The advice, recommendations or rankings expressed in this article are those of the Buy Side from WSJ editorial team, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by our commercial partners.